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Winston Lord Urges U.S. Partners to Help Pressure North Korea, Says South Korea’s Approach Endangers Alliance

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: The Honorable Winston Lord, Co-Chairman, International Rescue Committee
February 13, 2003

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Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Clinton administration, says the “very serious crisis” over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions cannot be solved by the United States alone. He supports the Bush team’s efforts to bring the issue to the United Nations Security Council, saying it is “an essential next step.”

But Lord, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations and currently co-chairman of the International Rescue Committee, warns that South Korea’s efforts to mediate the standoff raise doubts about future Washington-Seoul relations— and the status of U.S. forces in South Korea.

Lord was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on February 13, 2003.

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How should the confrontation with North Korea resolved?

This is a very serious crisis. There are the nuclear dimensions, the missile dimensions, the spreading of weapons to other countries and possibly terrorists— all on top of the long-standing conventional and chemical threat from North Korea.

There are no good options because, on the one hand, a United States military strike would almost certainly result in a North Korean invasion across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. And at the other end of the spectrum, being extorted or blackmailed by North Korea starts us on an endless road and sets a very bad precedent. So, you have to find something in between. I believe it has to be multilateral in character and therefore I think the administration is making the best of a very difficult situation in trying to move in that direction.

It does not mean the United States should not talk to the North Koreans. The administration has said it would do so. But we can’t do so effectively without a backdrop of pressures and incentives. We will be ineffective on our own. So we need as much multilateral cover and reinforcement as possible for what eventually will be United States-North Korean talks.

So you approve of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ruling Wednesday that North Korea is in “non-compliance” with its nuclear non-proliferation commitments, which sends the issue to the U.N. Security Council?

Absolutely. I think this is an essential next step. The whole credibility of the IAEA and non-proliferation would be undermined if this situation was ignored. And in addition, this is a multilateral Asian and world problem, not just a United States problem and cannot be solved without both multilateral pressures and multilateral incentives on North Korea to come into line.

North Korea seems almost insistent to the point of lunacy that it will only resolve the issue of its nuclear development in direct talks with the United States. How will it react to Security Council involvement?

North Korea will probably react badly, but those critics who are whining about United States policy in response to North Korea temper tantrums should be pressuring South Korea and China, and, to a certain extent, Russia, Japan, and the European Union, to get into the act here rather than leaving it all to us.

First of all, there is some irony here historically. South Korea, for several decades, and while we were negotiating the agreement in the early 1990s, was very unhappy whenever we talked to the North Koreans and they were not involved. Now it has been turned upside down, and they are pressuring us to talk alone to North Korea.

And critics in the United States and elsewhere should not be pressuring the administration to talk to North Korea— even though we are going to have to do so at some point, but with as much multilateral pressures and incentives, and as much multilateral cover as we can obtain.

Instead these critics should be going to the South Koreans and the Chinese with their complaints. These countries have as much if not greater stakes in this crisis than we do, not to mention Russia, Japan, and Europe. In the case of South Korea, of course, it is their peninsula. They have to live with this regime in the future. They have the kinds of incentives with the North in terms of investment and aid that could make a difference in influencing the negotiations.

The Chinese have been propping up the North Koreans for years with food and fuel. They have probably the greatest influence on the North Koreans. They have a huge stake in this issue. It is certainly not in their interest for North Koreans to have nuclear weapons. That could lead to places like Japan and South Korea, and perhaps even Taiwan, seeking nuclear weapons. So China should be much more involved. And Japan of course is threatened by missiles from North Korea and it holds out the prospect of tremendous aid in the future. So they should be helpful.

Most Security Council members seem to want to avoid sanctions against North Korea. Is this is a wise approach?

Well, ideally, I would agree with Senator John McCain and others on this point. Namely, I’d like to isolate and contain North Korea, using sanctions if necessary. Realistically, however, sanctions are totally ineffective if we try to do it on our own. And it is very clear that all the major players— China Russia, Japan, South Korea, and Europe— are unprepared to do this, so we can’t pursue the preferred policy.

Therefore, I think, particularly with the Iraq crisis going on at the same time, we should, as we now will be doing, establish that this is a multilateral problem, that the United Nations and the IAEA should be seized with it, and we should try to use this multilateral forum as a chance to talk to the North Koreans but with the reinforcement of these other interested parties.

Do you think the North Koreans will ask to speak to the Security Council at this meeting?

North Korea is the most unpredictable regime in the world….They will certainly rant and rave that this shouldn’t be treated at the United Nations, that the United States alone has to solve this. But once again, if we have multilateral solidarity with key neighbors… we will have a better chance of North Korea attending, and North Korea being willing to talk. As long as everyone gangs up on the United States and says we have to handle this problem unilaterally, North Korea has no incentive to deal with this in a multilateral forum.

The new president of South Korea, Roh Moo Hyun, will take office in a couple of weeks, and he sent some advisers to Washington recently. What’s your sense of the new government?

I am very apprehensive. Now, of course the jury is out. [The new administration hasn’t] even taken office yet. But given the past statements of the incoming president, given what [South Korean officials] have been saying in recent weeks, and given what I understand took place with this delegation in Washington, this is a very dangerous situation.

What has provoked North Korea the most in the last few months has not been Bush’s rhetoric, but the election in South Korea. North Korea escalated its pressures and steps on the nuclear front immediately after the South Korean election, when it saw it would get a “soft” government, when it saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.

South Korea has the primary say in this issue….But the South Koreans have to make a choice now. If they want to take a position that they will be equidistant between the atrocious regime of Kim Jong Il and the United States ally and try to mediate, if they will not counter anti-American demonstrations and the call for the withdrawal of United States troops, if they want to continue making unilateral concessions to North Korea, that is their right. They’ve got to see security in terms that they can live with.

But we therefore have to wonder if we should keep our troops there. And I say that as someone who has been a staunch supporter of the United States military presence in Asia generally and in South Korea in particular. I don’t think we will come to that. I hope President Roh, when he takes office, will take a more reasonable position. But it is time for the South Korean president coming in, and South Korean leaders in general, to make clear to their own people the sacrifices the Americans have made and the need for American troops to protect their security.

Why do the South Koreans seem so blase about a nuclear-armed North Korea?

It is beyond my comprehension. I have seen a report in The New York Times that the recent South Korean delegation to Washington said they would rather have a nuclear North Korea than the collapse of that regime. Now the quick answer to the question is that they have always faced and continue to face such a huge conventional and perhaps chemical attack problem right across their border, 30 miles from Seoul. Given the closeness in geography and the overwhelming non-nuclear military threat, I guess the nuclear dimension doesn’t add an awful lot to their security concerns.

But why China is being so laid back on this issue when one of its nightmares is Japan going nuclear— which could happen if North Korea continues on this path— is beyond my comprehension. We’ve got to elevate this on the agenda with China. I believe the administration is doing that. And I recognize we have other things, including Iraq and terrorism, on the agenda with China now. But this has to be at the top. It is in China’s own self-interest. We cannot pull this off without China’s help, and South Korea’s help, and [help from] some of the others.

What is your sense of North Korea’s statements that it has no nuclear weapons, that it does not intend to make any, and is only powering up the reactors to make electricity?

There are several parts of this. First, there has been a lot of loose talk, including by some in the administration that the North Koreans have one or two nuclear weapons. Unless something has happened of which I am unaware, we don’t know that for sure. The CIA and others have always said North Korea had enough plutonium to make one or two nuclear weapons in the early ’90s that was unaccounted for. But I have not seen any administration statements confirming that [North Koreans] now have weapons.

On [North Korean officials’] intentions, who knows? They obviously have at least two motives. One is, assuming that this is just a bargaining move, to extort as much aid from the outside world, including the United States, as they can. And to the extent that that is a genuine concern, they also want to get security assurances that we won’t attack them.

The second alternative is that they are hell-bent on making nuclear weapons, no matter what. They will extract as much as they can along the way, but for their own security and prestige they plan on getting those weapons, particularly because everything else is a “basket case” in North Korea and that would be their only source of strength.

I guess the most logical explanation, and we can’t be sure, is that they will go ahead and make weapons and perhaps sell weapons or plutonium to other countries if they can’t extract from extortion and blackmail sufficient aid from the world community, including the United States.

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